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Jones v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

January 10, 2019

Rodney Llewlyn Jones, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Rodney Jones instituted this action in December 2017 to challenge the denial of his application for social security income. Jones claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Christopher Willis erred in (1) failing to properly explain why he did not accord substantial weight to a disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), and (2) determining Jones's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Both Jones and Defendant Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 12, 14.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Willis reached the appropriate decision. The record supports ALJ Willis's reasons for giving only partial weight to the VA disability finding. And substantial evidence supports his RFC determination that Jones could perform a reduced range of medium work. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court deny Jones's motion, grant Berryhill's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         I. Background

         In February 2015, Jones filed an application for disability benefits alleging a disability that began that same month. After his claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Jones appeared at a hearing before ALJ Willis to determine whether he was entitled to benefits. ALJ Willis determined that Jones was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled. Tr. at 24-36.

         ALJ Willis found that Jones had the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), major depressive disorder (“MDD”), bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, hypertension, sleep apnea, arthralgia/arthritis/degenerative disc disease, and obesity. Tr. at 26. ALJ Willis found that Jones's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Id.

         ALJ Willis determined that Jones had the RFC to perform a reduced range of medium work with other limitations. Tr. at 29. Jones must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. Id. He is generally able to understand and perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks. Id. Jones can maintain concentration, persistence, and pace to stay on-task for periods of two hours at a time over the span of a typical eight-hour workday. Id. Jones requires a low-stress work setting that is further defined to mean no production-pace or quota-based work. Id. Jones also requires a goal-oriented job primarily dealing with things rather than people. Id.

         Jones should have no more than occasional changes in the work setting and no more than occasional interactions with coworkers and supervisors. Id. And Jones should have no work with the public as part of his job, such as sales or negotiations, although incidental or casual contact as it might arise is not precluded. Id.

         ALJ Willis concluded that Jones cannot perform his past relevant work as a construction equipment mechanic, supervisor, or mechanic. Tr. at 34. But considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Willis found that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Jones could perform. Tr. at 35. These jobs include laundry worker, industrial cleaner, and floor waxer. Id. Thus, ALJ Willis found that Jones was not disabled. Tr. at 35-36.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Jones began this action in December 2017. D.E. 5.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background

         Jones has a history of military service, after which he became a civilian contractor. Tr. at 30. A September 2013 x-ray of his lumbar spine showed no acute bony abnormalities. Id. Jones reported chronic neck, lower back, and knee pain in January 2016. Tr. at 32. An examination found no swelling, edema, or balance deficits. Id. Although providers assessed arthralgias of the right knee with bilateral ankle and neck pain, Jones remained ambulatory. Id. He used over-the-counter pain medications as needed. Id.

         Jones also has a history of hypertension, generally controlled with medication, and sleep apnea, for which he uses a CPAP machine. Id. Jones is obese, with a body mass index of 34.1. Id.

         State agency physician Dr. Leslie Arnold concluded that Jones's physical ...


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